In November of 2017, webmasters noticed longer meta descriptions appearing in Google’s search results pages (SERPs). In December, this was confirmed by representatives of Google (John Mueller and Danny Sullivan) to be a recent change in how search results are displayed.

For many years, the meta description tag has been known to allow approximately 156 characters of text for each organic search result. However, it is not an exact character limit, the meta description length is actually derived from the pixel width of the container and the average number of characters which would fit inside two lines of text. Factors such as the pixel-width of keywords appearing in the meta description could change what was displayed due to limitations of the snippet container.

Impact on Organic Search Results

The changes made by Google have effectively doubled the number of lines allowed in the meta description portion of the search result. Now users may see up to 320 characters in each snippet for organic search results. Webmasters can take advantage of the additional space by including more calls to action, contact information, an enhanced description of page content and topics, and broadening the target keywords and phrases included.

One negative effect of these changes is that they can impact your click-through rates from a search results page. If your content does not appear “above-the-fold” or in the top positions for organic search results users will have to scroll down to see your link. 

Should You Edit Your Current Meta Descriptions?

For websites which have already optimized their meta descriptions for the previous limits, several considerations need to be made with respect to the value of making changes to the descriptions.

Other Search Engines Have Not Followed (Yet)

Google is not the only search engine, and may not even be the primary search engine used by your audience based their location and language. Rewriting meta descriptions for Google’s search results may have a negative impact on users for other search engines if not handled carefully. The following table shows the approximate number of characters allowed (including spaces) by each search engine.

  Google Bing Yahoo Baidu Ask
Page Title 65 65 70 80 65
Meta Description 320 150 160 200 300

Meta Descriptions Are Not A Ranking Factor

Meta Descriptions are not a ranking factor for organic search results. This has been known for several years and has been confirmed by Google when discussing these recent changes. Given the time and effort required to create optimized meta descriptions, we have to consider this when making the case for changing the meta descriptions to take advantage of the extra characters.

Meta Descriptions Are Dynamically Changed by Google

Google can and does modify the snippets in search results based upon the user’s query. This is handled by Google’s own search algorithms to provide users with the context that they deem to be more relevant than the page titles and meta descriptions which have been provided by the website. A meta description which is only 156 characters in length may have additional content appended by Google or be completely replaced with a portion of the page’s content.

Testing your pages in search results, by using the primary search terms, can help determine whether the current meta description is sufficient or if Google is generating a description which can be improved upon.

Prioritizing URLs for Meta Description Updates

If the decision to update meta descriptions has been made, URLs should be prioritized based on the potential impact. Some considerations include:

  • Pages which are already ranking in positions 1-3 for their primary keywords, followed by pages which are ranking in position 4-12.
  • Pages which appear to have low CTR for the given position. There are many search features competing for organic clicks, in addition to paid search results. URLs which rank well for a query but have low click-through rate for the position may benefit from a longer meta description.
  • Pages targeting “complex” queries, including search phrases and questions which would be considered long-tail. These types of searches are increasing due to the changes in search behaviour and the adoption of voice search.

Instead of using queries consisting of 3 words or less, users may conduct searches using longer phrases and specific questions which we can classify as “informational queries”. Here, users may be more likely to read longer snippets (including meta descriptions) before clicking on a specific search result.

Best Practices for Optimizing Meta Descriptions

When optimizing meta descriptions for Google’s new snippet length, keep in mind that other search engines may not be able to display all of the text. Therefore, it is important to keep the most relevant information within the first 160 characters. This means “front-loading” primary search terms and phrases, page topics and context, as well as calls-to-action.